First, a very cheesy baptism joke: An old guy stumbles upon a baptismal service on Sunday afternoon down by the river. He proceeds to walk down into the water and stand next to the Preacher. The minister turns and notices the old guy and says, "Well hello mister! Are you ready to find Jesus?" The old guy looks back and says, "Yes, Preacher. I sure am." The minister then dunks the fellow under the water and pulls him right back up. "Have you found Jesus?" the preacher asked. "No, I didn't!" said the old fellow. The preacher then dunks him under for quite a bit longer, brings him up and says, "Now, brother, have you found Jesus?" "No, I did not Reverend." The preacher in disgust holds the man under for at least 30 seconds this time, then pulls him out of the water and says in a harsh tone, "My God, have you found Jesus yet?" The old guy wipes his eyes and says to the preacher... "Are you sure this is where he fell in?”
We start this new year with John baptizing his cousin, Jesus, in the swirling waters of the Jordan. A new beginning for Jesus, a culmination of years of prophecy for John. John was attracting hordes of people to the riverbank for his special baptism. He would yell at them about repenting, then dunk them in the river. Remember that repenting was not just feeling bad about your sins but about changing your ways, turning around. Repentance was the main point of John’s baptism, which brings up some questions about today’s gospel reading.
Why does Jesus get baptized? Surely the perfect son of God didn’t sin. But he was human, wasn’t he? The repentance John calls for is the act of turning; both away from sins and turning instead toward God. Jesus formally starts his ministry with this act of turning toward his father.
Incidentally, this baptism story was a great conundrum for the early church. Why would the perfect son of God seek a ritual of repentance? Early church leaders feared that others could use this baptism as evidence that Jesus was an ordinary man, not the Messiah. So, let’s see what happens:
Jesus wades in next to John. Can you envision that moment, see the rippling waters of the river Jordan, where Jesus stood looking down at his own reflection on the face of the water? The wind blew down that river as John helps Jesus descend into the water. The heavens cracked open, a dove appeared, and a booming voice broke the silence, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
Jesus hears the beautiful, incredibly affirming words of his Father. I love that God tears open the heavens to address his son with this beautiful blessing.
The Rev. Maxwell Grant writes that as Jesus "was coming out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and a dove descending.” Mark’s word for 'torn apart' is schizo, and it means "to cleave, to cleave asunder, to rend." It's a strangely violent word to describe such a happy occasion. God has torn open the heavens and come down. At the baptism of Jesus God has committed the act of breaking and entering the world.
Think of what is happening here. Jesus, son of God, has been baptized. We worship a God who has been baptized. This means that God knows what it is to be human, to work tirelessly toward goals of peace, love, justice, goals that never seem to be achieved. Most importantly, Jesus getting dunked in the Jordan means that our Christ will never ask us to go where he is not.
He humbles himself in this act of repentance, he walks down into those swirling waters to be human, vulnerable, in a beautiful act of solidarity with us.
Baptism is a call to be part of the remarkable, redemptive work of God. To give our lives to something more challenging than our daily grind--and in the end, surely more beautiful, true, and enduring than any other kind of work we could do.
But truly saying yes to our baptism is daily work for the rest of our lives. It is saying yes to the world and yes to a life torn open by the love of God. We love because God first loves us. In baptism God declares that love; in Christ, God calls us to respond.
Baptism means that we are not alone in the wilderness. It means that God's love for us doesn't depend upon us. It means that God's grace doesn't wash off.
Jesus turned toward God at his baptism. At our baptisms, like Christ, we also were stamped with God’s acceptance and affirmation. Like Christ, we are God’s beloved children, and God is well pleased with us.
Let me say that again: God is well pleased with us. God loves us as we are. We are bombarded with messages that say we need to be richer, thinner, smarter, stronger, healthier, more attractive, younger. And the insidious part of the message is that until we change, we are not OK. So, think of this message: with baptism, God has declared that we are enough, that we are loved just as we are. God is well pleased with us.
David Lose suggests this; that each of us remembers this simple thing: “I am God’s child, deserving of love and respect, and God will use me to change the world.” I pray that we can all remember that.
When we recite our baptismal vows today, let’s say these words as a conscious act of turning toward God as we start this new year. Really, what could be a better resolution?
Let us vow that through God’s grace, we will forgive others as we are forgiven; we will seek to love our neighbors as ourselves and strive for peace and justice. We will accept the cost of following Jesus Christ in our daily lives and work; with the whole Church we will proclaim by word and action the Good News of God in Christ. Let’s try to live into these words in 2022!